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Ernie Hudson – Sowing Seeds with Grace & Frankie

Updated: Mar 15, 2020

Actor Ernie Hudson at Cinespace Chicago. Photographer: Michael Becker

Ernie Hudson

Sowing Seeds with Grace & Frankie

by Jay S. Jacobs

It’s funny the curveballs that life throws you. Take Ernie Hudson. After a good 40 years hustling, hitting the casting offices and sets and craft services tables of hundreds of movies and TV series, making a name for himself as a go-to guy in Hollywood, was finally hitting a point where he was thinking maybe it was time to slow down a bit.

That didn’t last very long. 2017 was one of his busiest years in an always busy career. In the past year alone, he has worked on five movies (including the upcoming Nappily Ever After and The Family Business). He also had recurring or starring roles on several series, his third and fourth seasons with Netflix’s hit sitcom Grace & Frankie, FOX’s police drama APB, the Nick Nolte political satire Graves and even had a small role on David Lynch’s reboot Twin Peaks: The Return.

So much for thoughts of taking it easy. Hudson, who looks decades younger than his 72 years, had even hit a point where he was only living in Hollywood part of the year. He also has a place in Minneapolis.

“I have a house here,” Hudson told me on a phone call from his Minnesota home. “We have a place in LA, too. This is what I’m trying to consider home, I just don’t get here very often. My wife’s dad is 97, so she needs to be here. And, home is pretty much wherever she is, so this is home now.”

So how crazy is it that just when he was getting ready to gear down, the casting people started to ring his phone off the hook?

“This past year was really a good year in terms of me figuring out where I am,” Hudson said. “Realizing where I am now is different than where I was five years ago. Not necessarily in terms of the success deal, but in terms of where I am in my life….”

Actor Ernie Hudson at Cinespace Chicago. Photographer: Michael Becker

And, it seems, he is not completely ready to stop working. He enjoys it too much. Now is just a time where he gets the opportunity to be a little pickier.

“The work is always fun,” Hudson explained. “It doesn’t become too much. I’ve been throwing in some conventions and some public speaking. A few weeks ago, I thought that part I can cut down on. The difference in the work now is really wanting to find things that are going to be fun. That I want to do.”

It’s an interesting place to be, having these choices. Realizing the world will not end if he holds out on a role that doesn’t interest him.

“My mindset has always been I need to work,” Hudson said. “Having kids, being a single dad, and re-marrying. You’ve got the mortgages and stuff. [Now], thankfully, I don’t have the mortgage, and the kids are all grown up. I thought why don’t we take a look at this a bit differently? I’m not in the habit of saying no.”

In fact, it has always slightly amused Hudson when people congratulated him for his good taste in projects – over a career that has included such classic films as Ghostbusters, The Crow and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Hudson admits is wasn’t totally his taste that made his career. Sometimes it’s a matter of luck, skill, and just being the right fit.

“Maybe when you let go things have a way of going on their own,” Hudson chuckled. “I realize you can’t make a career. People congratulate me on my choices, but those were the jobs that were offered. You look back on it and it’s an interesting thing, but I wasn’t as selective as I felt I could have been.”

So how have things changed since he has let go?

“In the past couple of years, and especially in this past year, I wanted to do something where I could really extend myself and have fun with,” he said. “A movie called The Family Business – [based on a novel by] a guy named Carl Weber who has a series of books out – we shot that.  It was just so much fun to be the lead in something and just do your homework. Sometimes, especially when you do a lot of the TV stuff, I think they’d almost prefer you didn’t do homework.”

Ernie Hudson

Hudson laughed, “They just want you to show up and say their words and go home. It’s been some fun projects.”

One of those fun projects really came out of the blue for Hudson. He recently finished his fourth season on the star-studded Netflix sitcom Grace & Frankie, co-starring with Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston. The fourth season will be available to stream on January 19. In fact, Hudson was recently nominated for an NAACP Image Award for his role as Jacob the Yam Man, a farm owner who falls in love with Lily Tomlin’s Frankie.

“I got a lot of congratulations from people who I didn’t even think would be aware of the Image Awards,” Hudson admitted.

Still, when Hudson first heard of the series’ creation a few years ago, he never imagined this would be a project which he would get a chance to work on, though he did know a few members of the cast slightly.

“I had met Jane some time ago,” Hudson said. “I didn’t know Lily. Sam, I had worked with on Law & Order. Martin, I had almost done a film with, and it kind of fell apart, but I got to know him a little bit.

“I heard the show was happening,” Hudson continued. “I didn’t even imagine doing the show, because it just seemed like one of those shows that I wouldn’t be invited to. Then my agent got a call saying that they were interested in possibly a love interest. I think at first, they thought it would be Jane and then it switched to Lily.”

Hudson was flattered that they would consider him in such a well-known cast.

“Just the thought of working with that group of people… I’ve been acting a long time, but as long as I’ve been acting, they’ve been prominent,” Hudson said. “They are people who I looked up to, and admired their work over the years. It was great to be invited to come and be in that company.”

Another perk in Grace & Frankie was the fact that the role was being written with him in mind to play it.

“Sometimes early on you have to audition,” he said. “I always feel like I’m begging for a part. So, it’s nice that they liked my work and just said, ‘Okay, would you like to be a part of this?’

Still, he wasn’t sure what they were going to do with his character, but with this kind of talent attached, he decided to trust the showrunners. Soon after he joined up, he knew he had made the right choice.

Ernie Hudson and Lily Tomlin in “Grace & Frankie.”

“When I met Lily, I just fell in love with Lily,” Hudson said. “She’s just the most amazing person. I think she takes a little different approach, not starting out as an actor. She’s very open, and giving, and honest.”

In fact, even as a long-time actor, Hudson finds Tomlin’s acting technique intriguing and refreshing. He said that when he is on set, he tends to go in observing. Checking out everyone’s techniques, the things that are happening around him. Particularly in this company of smart old pros, Tomlin’s style stands out – perhaps because Tomlin comes out of the world of stand-up and sketch comedy, rather than starting off as a straight actress. He feels that when they are working together they are engaged, though he tries to give her space and respect her privacy when not doing scenes.

“I’m so fascinated by what she does,” Hudson said. “When actors can be in the moment so readily – because I’ve worked with a lot of actors, even veteran actors, that really have to work hard to find the moment. It forces you to come from a more honest place. So, I’ve just been admiring how she does what she does. It’s a very different process than Jane, or Sam, or Martin. She has just an intuitive [feel for the situation]. I’m just fascinated by her.”

Grace & Frankie is rather unique in a very youth-obsessed Hollywood, because it is a show that is focused on people of a certain age. Hudson finds that to be an intriguing part of the project, as well, though he acknowledges he is not totally surprised that Hollywood doesn’t make more shows for the older demographic.

“Hollywood, it seems… and I don’t know, everybody has an opinion… but, it seems they are always trying to find their way to make money,” Hudson acknowledged. “It’s not really about doing something that they think people really want, unless people really want it and they will show up at the [box office]. It’s not like ‘This will be a wonderful thing.’ I get the feeling it is really driven by the financial bottom line.”

Yet, while Hudson understood where that is feeling was coming from, he didn’t necessarily agree. In fact, he felt that often Hollywood was selling the fringe demographics short.

Lily Tomlin and Ernie Hudson in “Grace & Frankie.”

“A lot of times it’s not even real, because I’ve heard reports that family movies make more money than a lot of the big blockbuster things,” Hudson said. “I think Hollywood has a version of what will sell. I think that’s why it took so long for blacks to finally get to be the lead in things, because they said that won’t sell. ‘The European markets won’t buy it. We don’t want to focus on old people. We don’t want to focus on overweight people. We want to do what’s going to make us money. We need beautiful people. We need stories of 18-year olds.’ Whatever that idea is, they are holding to it, and trying to cater to it.”

However, Hudson has noticed over the years that despite fits and starts, like the old Sam Cooke song said, “a change is gonna come.” And more and more people are supportive and open to diversity.

“We’re a different society. A different world. I used to have that argument when I would work on shows, and I’d be the only black person in the cast, and it would be supposed to be Detroit. I’d be like this is frickin’ Detroit.” Hudson laughed. “So, I think we’re coming around, when you talk about diversity. I don’t just mean diversity in terms of racial makeup, just in terms of how we are. I mean, the weight thing… A lot of the foreign movies are a lot more honest in terms of the people they cast.”

Hudson hopes this feeling of tolerance will soon be mirrored in film and TV, a state that has started, but still has a while to go.

“I know that was a long, drawn out answer to your question, but I think Hollywood has an idea of what sells,” Hudson said. “Even when it doesn’t sell, they stick with that idea. I’m having a problem now with… I mean, I love all the comic action stuff, but I’m getting a little burnt out. I’m so sick of all the war. Everybody’s battling. It’s two hours of people fighting. But, whatever, everybody has an opinion.”